Danny Care: I have unfinished business with the Rugby World Cup

Danny Care passes the ball during the England training session held at Pennyhill Park on August 01, 2023 in Bagshot, England.

‘When Steve offered me the chance to come in and try and fight for a spot I have never put the phone down more excited,’ Danny Care says – Getty Images/David Rogers

Danny Care will return to the site of what ranks among his most gut-wrenching setbacks as the England scrum-half begins his unlikely Rugby World Cup journey 12 years after having another abruptly ended.

Having secured his place in Martin Johnson’s squad for the 2011 World Cup, Care travelled across the Severn Bridge to face Wales in England’s second warm-up game. Then 24, he had started a fixture between the teams at Twickenham the previous weekend and looked set to go to New Zealand as the first-choice No 9 with Ben Youngs returning to full fitness.

Richard Wigglesworth, now his coach for the current campaign, was promoted to start the Cardiff encounter but that would not spare Care from his first bout of World Cup agony.

“I blame Wiggy,” Care joked. “I played in the first game, got picked in the squad, Wiggy started the second and went off with a dodgy HIA. But that is rugby, it happens.”

Care was so confident of his World Cup place that his parents had booked flights Down Under – they went anyway and enjoyed a “great trip”.

But he suffered a broken plate of bone in his foot after coming on for Wigglesworth early in England’s 19-9 loss and although Care completed the match, a scan confirmed the worst. He was ruled out for four months, missing the tournament. Time is a healer, and experience has taught him not to be tentative.

Danny Care of England makes a break during the rugby union international friendly match between Wales and England at the Millennium Stadium on August 13, 2011 in Cardiff, Wales

Care has suffered World Cup heartbreak before, in 2011 – Getty Images/Laurence Griffiths

“One thing you can’t do going onto a rugby field is think about staying fit and no one will be doing that [on Saturday],” Care added. “Everyone will be flying in to win Test matches.”

‘My past experiences have made me more intent on adding something’

In Dan Cole, Courtney Lawes and Youngs, Steve Borthwick has had three other survivors from 2011 in his training squad this summer. Not for the first time, Care appeared to have played his last Test. However, the England head coach rang him after the Six Nations and offered up a chance to heal a World Cup hoodoo.

Among the highlights and title victories that punctuate his career, Care can only boast a single appearance at the tournament; that coming in a 60-3 win over Uruguay in 2015, a gloomy dead rubber with England already out. Without a second’s thought, Care agrees that there is unfinished business.

“They were different,” he explained of his various World Cup misfortunes. “In 2011 I had done the whole build-up going into that tournament. For once I was probably number one 9. Benny got injured so he only came back in the second or third game. That was tough to take; you go in there as perceived number one and you think ‘this is my chance to show what I can do’.

“In 2015 I was delighted to get in the squad, wanted to offer more and wasn’t needed. Then 2019, I didn’t even get into the squad. They were all very different and it helped to rationalise it that way. It has always made me more intent on adding something to this England team if I get a chance at this World Cup.

“If you had asked me a couple of years ago ‘ do I think I would playing for England in a World Cup?’ I would have said ‘no’ but I still believed and I still dreamt there was a chance and when Steve picked the phone up and offered me the chance to come in and try and fight for a spot I have never put the phone down more excited.”

Danny Care prepares to feed the ball into the scrum during the England training session held at Pennyhill Park on August 01, 2023 in Bagshot, England

Care has only played one World Cup game for England – Getty Images/David Rogers

During that phone-call, Borthwick wanted to be sure that Care was comfortable with the commitment to spending long spells away from his wife, Jodie, and their three children. Care vowed to make the sacrifice worthwhile and fight for a spot. He, Youngs and Jack van Poortvliet all look likely to go to France and Care will win an 88th cap against Warren Gatland’s charges on Saturday evening.

Wigglesworth, who is leading a down-time darts competition between the pair, says his old sparring partner remains “consistently difficult to handle as an opposition defence”. Earlier this summer, Borthwick heralded Care’s astute kicking display for Harlequins against Leicester Tigers in the Premiership, following a red card for Chris Ashton.

As a burgeoning media pundit, Care has interviewed Borthwick and passed comment on an underwhelming Six Nations for England, albeit always with an ulterior motive. “I always tried to be quite impartial with England because I always hoped there was a dream I might get picked again,” he said. “I’m glad I wasn’t too much of an outlaw.”

‘Don’t go into your shell, be brave’

Back in the fold, Care has been urged to be himself. “Do your job and bring your x-factor,” said Care, paraphrasing his head coach. “Don’t go into your shell. Be brave and back yourself and that will make this England team great.” All the while, the lessons from a topsy-turvy time with England can be valuable. Care feels that as he has matured, taking Harlequins half-back partner Marcus Smith under his wing, he has become a more rounded and effective player capable of thriving under Borthwick and Wigglesworth.

“In the last few years I have had to develop more of a control and kicking game,” he added. “When you have got someone like Marcus who I play with every week, I don’t want him to worry about that sort of stuff because the other things he can do, other people can’t do. I don’t want him to have to think about too much stuff so as a nine you take over a bit more control. So hopefully I have some experience in that.

“Steve and Wiggy are doing it because they got success in that. And of course you have to be a little bit different internationally. You have to adapt. The bedrock of winning international rugby is your set piece is incredibly strong, you have a good kicking game and your defence is very good and you take your attacking opportunities. That is what they have been drilling into us early doors.”

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